The Old Age of Youth

In a previous life I designed newspaper adverts for living. A local golf club asked me to make up an advert for their new special offers. They had reduced rates for young players and senior players. So far so normal perhaps – until I saw that the ‘seniors’ category started at 50 years of age. Senior citizen. At 50. Well, short-Anglo-Saxon-word that I thought.

Boomers, Millennials and youth culture in general have had their day. Now it’s the M/ACs turn to drive the economy and define the culture.

You could call this ageist but I think it’s really just a category error – where things from one category are presented as though they belong in a different category. The golf club is placing 50 year olds in a senior citizen category because 50 year olds don’t have a category of their own. Frankly, I blame young people.

Well, actually I blame our youth oriented society. There is a tacit understanding fostered by advertising and media – and through their influence, society at large – that anybody beyond the 18-35 demographic is the social equivalent of an appendix – nor really useful any more but still hanging around using up resources. Ideally you should be in the coveted late teens/early 20s of the ‘Young Adult’ market and your social and economic utility declines rapidly by the late thirties and early 40’s. You become invisible.

Don’t believe me? Think about the advertising you see. In the 20’/30’s category you are the focus of the advert. Buy this drink, buy this car, buy this lifestyle. After that you appear only as an adjunct to your kids. Buy them this toy, buy them this school, buy them this future. As your kids get old enough to do their own buying, you disappear from view entirely and don’t appear as the focus again until retirement. Buy this denture cream, buy this cruise, buy this stair lift.

It might be a crazy idea, but I think there’s a huge chunk of society being ignored – there’s room for another category. So, before everybody too old to appear in a coke commercial gets carted off to the Soylent factory I though I’d try to define it.

Nothing’s real until you give it a name. You need a short definition and a catchy acronym to get attention. Try this: Somewhere between the last school run and the first shuffleboard game, between the last big raise and the first pension… lies the undiscovered country of the M/AC. Not the computer, not the raincoat, not even the fruit – that forward slash is important – but standing for Mature and/or with Adult Children.

Let’s be clear; M/AC isn’t the same sort of category as Generation X or Millennial. It isn’t based on whether you like rock, punk or grunge. The year you were born doesn’t matter. There were M/ACs in 1820 and there’ll probably be M/ACs in 2120. Being a M/AC is a combination of economics and neurological ageing. Pretty much everybody is, was or will be a M/AC because pretty much everybody’s brain ages the same way.

If you’re a M/AC you are, very roughly, somewhere between your late 40’s and early 60’s. If you have children they are grown up enough that they don’t have much to do with your day-to-day life. You’ve paid off or almost paid off your mortgage. You’ve stopped scrambling so frantically up the career ladder either because you realise it’s not worth it or because you’re too old to get advancement. You have time and you have resources.

Why should anybody care about a handful of 40 or 50-somethings? Because it’s more than a handful. All that ‘ageing population’ stuff you remember reading about isn’t in the future, it’s already happened, you just didn’t notice. Have a look at the Fig 1 below (courtesy of Eurostat: ‘Being Young in Europe Today’). It’s two, roughly onion-dome shaped graphs superimposed. The light yellow and blue colours represent the relative population in Europe in 1994. The longest bars – the highest proportions of the population – are clustered around the 20 to 34 year old age groups. But that was 20 + years ago. Those 20 to 34 year olds got older and that bulge in the onion dome has moved up. The longest bars (dark blue and yellow) are now the 40 to 54 age bracket. All those bright, young things – all us bright young things – are now middle-aged. Declining birthrates mean that while 20 year olds used to outnumber the 50 year olds, those numbers have now reversed and the imbalance will only get worse. For the US (Fig 2) the numbers are similar. The 30 year old demographic was larger than the 50 year old one by a comfortable margin thirty years ago but those numbers have almost evened out. The tapering pyramid of population is more of a pillar now and as we head into the future there will be almost the same proportion of the population in each age bracket.

Fig 1. European population by age and sex 1994 to 2014.
Fig 2. US population by age and sex 1990 to 2015.

OK, so there are more old fogies than there used to be, who cares? It’s the young people who matter – that’s where it’s all happening man! Well, that’s certainly where it was all happening but we live in a capitalist society where a population’s social value is predicated on their economic value. ‘Show me the money’ is virtually our catchphrase. So let me show you the money.

What are M/ACs worth? Well, quite a bit to judge from the figures on Median incomes peek around the 40’s – slightly later for men, slightly earlier for women. After that you can see a drop in income through to retirement age but the decline isn’t that steep. The ramp down is shallower than the ramp up. The 55-59 age group’s combined median income is £26,600 compared to the 30-34 age group’s £25,200. People in their 60’s still have a higher median income (£23,700) than that most ardently wooed of demographics – people in the 20’s (£21,500). In the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows median weekly income for the early 20’s age bracket is $540. For the 25-34 and 35-44 brackets that goes up to $794 and $971 respectively. Between 45 and 54 there’s another bump to $986 with over 55’s making $994 – almost twice the earnings of the 20 year olds.

If M/ACs have the most money and there are more of them, why do advertisers pursue the younger demographic so vehemently? Because young people are suckers. It’s not really their fault. Neurologically speaking, the young are virtually a different species to adults. The frontal cortex – the bit of your brain that allows you to make good decisions – doesn’t mature until the mid 20’s (which at least explains your what-the-hell-was-I-thinking fashion choices in old photos). Perspective, rationalisation and emotional regulation are all dialed right down in the teenage years and right through the early 20’s. Young consumers are severely handicapped by their endless quest for novelty, fierce desire to fit in and notoriously poor risk estimation ability. And yes, it’s more complicated that that. Some young people make good choices, some old people never do. In general though, all of this is a perfect recipe for a consumer who is easily manipulated and eager to buy.

M/ACs though are pretty much the polar opposite. They don’t part with their money frivolously or appreciate novelty for it’s own sake. They don’t care if they’re not ‘cool’ or part of the ‘in crowd’. They don’t want a rushed software product that needs two downloads to make it do what it was supposed to do in the first place (though, honestly, that one might be just me). If you want them to buy a new thing it has to be objectively better than the previous thing and not just available in a new colour/flavour/package.

Selling to M/ACs means a shift in business models. Product cycles that rely on novelty or gimmick – soft drinks & snack foods, fashion & cosmetics for example – will dwindle in value. It won’t be possible to release a new phone or computer or car every year because technology can’t produce, nor manufacturers tool up to build, significantly improved models in that time frame. M/ACs are brand loyal though (or set in their ways if you prefer). If they use product X for years then when it (eventually) breaks or a (much) better model comes out they will buy brand X again. The upshot for manufacturers being that they shift fewer units per year but shift them over more years. Turnover goes down but it becomes more stable.

If this seems like a lot of hard work it’s because it is. It might seem easier in the short term to keep fighting for a bigger slice of the youth market pie and rely on ever more sophisticated marketing to fake product freshness. The problem is that there are fewer and fewer young people and, in a post recession world, they have less disposable income. The pie is shrinking and while it won’t disappear completely there may not be enough to feed the sort of manic growth that industry has come to consider ‘normal’. Eventually some industries, maybe a lot of industries, will have to shift, at least in part, to that longer-term business model.

Think of it as practice. A lot of smart money is being spent on finding life extension drugs. Nothing works very well as yet but sooner or later something probably will (fingers crossed!). Fifty may or may not be the new forty but sometime soon a hundred will be the new fifty and M/ACs will be the only customer in town.

So: I’m offering a Faustian bargain to companies and advertisers. You need all that untapped M/AC money. M/ACs need an economic niche to legitimise their existence. Here we are, us M/ACs; tailor products to us, market to us, pander to our needs. Invent needs we didn’t know we had and pander to them!

I can’t make M/AC a real thing on my own though. I need your help. Tell your friends, post about it on line, write to your newspaper or even telephone your local radio station. Spread the word: we’re M/ACs and we’re here to stay…for 15 to 20 years.

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